Archive for January, 2011
If you’re a procrastinator, you’re probably a closet perfectionist. It may not seem so because you often fail to do your work in a very perfect way, but it’s the truth. It’s probably the feeling that your work needs to be flawless – that any flaw in your work means you’ve failed in some way – that leads you to procrastinate. Writing a report or a letter, doesn’t sound like a very tough task, but writing a perfect paper or a perfect letter sounds terrible, even impossible. And the good news for you is that it probably is. You can’t write a perfect paper, at least not given the time you have. And this goes for every other task too. You can’t make a presentation, write a speech or report, do your taxes, clean your garage, or bathe your dog without leaving something, however small, undone.
It’s a myth that there are many people who do things perfectly, and in the rare instances where people do get the job done flawlessly it’s either because the job was trivial (tying your shoes), or because they devoted an ungodly amount of time to it. Trivial jobs aren’t worth worrying about. And there are few tasks in your life worth obsessing over to the degree that you actually do it perfectly. Michelangelo’s David is perfect. But he used to work so obsessively on it that, after his assistant realized he hadn’t taken his shoes off in weeks, he took them off in Michelangelo’s sleep, and the skin of his feet came off with them.That is the price of perfection. For Michelangelo, it was worth it. But you can’t sculpt a David every day, and you’re probably not willing to pay the price of perfection for any of the tasks on your to-do list.
So what do you do? Forget perfection. Don’t make it your goal. Ever. Your new goal should be “good enough”. But good enough for what? Not the perfectionist that lives in the wrinkles of your brain. Good enough for you, given your desires, ambitions, and goals for life. If your goal is to pass the class, then passing is good enough. If your goal is to keep your scholarship, then the goal is a B+.
But your goal might not be these. Your goal, given that you’re really a terrible perfectionist, deep down, is greatness, excellence, the best possible. This is simply not a legitimate goal. Because, as you can see, the cost of perfection is rarely worth paying. You might be able to pull off a perfect paper or presentation or garage cleaning, but it will take exponentially longer than a good, or even really good job on the same task. And one of the most important skills for success in life is being able to tell which tasks are worthy of a really good performance, which demand nothing more than a fair performance, which can be done sloppily, and which are those extraordinarily rare tasks that ought to be done with pristine excellence. Chances are the tasks that you agonize about the most aren’t worth the sort of devotion that you’re imagining. Some of them may just need to get done in whatever sloppy, half-assed way you can do them. But most require at least good work. And remember, just because great is better than good, it doesn’t make good bad. Good work is just that: good work. And for most everything in life, good is quite good enough.
One of the main reasons you might avoid the task of consciously, intentionally managing your time is the feeling of anxiety that arises when you think about all that you “have” to do. I put “have” in quotation marks because one of the first things to realize is that you don’t really have to do much of anything. The report for work, filing your taxes, the paper for class, buying life insurance – none of these things is anything you really must do. Like everything else, the truth is that, if you don’t do them there will definitely be some result, but life will go on, and often in much the same way.
Perhaps you’re saying, “yes, I don’t really have to do any of those things, but if you take “have” in this strict sense as something that you cannot avoid doing, then the only thing anyone really has to do is die”. Quite true. But my point is not that there really aren’t many things you have to do, so you can just skip doing anything you don’t like. My point is much simpler, and it is this: the nature of “have” or “must” or “necessity” always presupposes some goal. “I have to do the laundry today” presupposes that you really want the laundry to be done before tomorrow. So, “I have to do the laundry today,” really means “I want the laundry done before tomorrow, and the way to satisfy that want is by doing the laundry today”. This is the nature of every “have” (except death, maybe).
But what does this rephrasing of all “I have to” statements give us? Well, statements with “I have to” or “I must” have a certain inordinate psychological power over us. The second we hear “I have to” or “you must” we tighten up, our anxiety levels rise, our fears of failure take hold, and then we often procrastinate or rebel. Rebellion makes a lot of psychological sense in this situation, because hearing “I have to” and “you must” feel like hitting a big rock wall, they feel like commands from some inscrutable Master that wants to make us servants, or slaves, and no one wants to be a slave. So we naturally rebel out of the fear that we’re being controlled or dominated by these commands out of nowhere – and I say “out of nowhere” because they really feel that way. “I have to write this report” gives no reason or motivation that is really appealing or that makes writing the report feel like a natural, desirable activity. It just feels like the commands our parents used to give us – “Do it. Why? Because I say so.” – and that’s not very attractive.
Rephrasing “have to” statements to reveal their actual meaning – “it is necessary to do this if I want such-and-such result” – robs them of their authoritarian feel and makes them reasonable, sane, and non-threatening. It also gives us the chance to ask whether this end-goal (getting the laundry done by tomorrow) is really all that important to us. “I have to do the laundry today” sounds like a burdensome command that can stress you out, while “If I want the laundry done tomorrow, I need to do it” gives you the chance to say “Yeah, but I don’t really care that much if it’s done tomorrow; I have some other things to do today. I’ll get to it if I can, after these.” Now, laundry is a pretty mundane example, and chances are laundry isn’t really what stresses you out; it’s something bigger. And for lots of the more important things in our lives we don’t have the chance to just not do them the way we can with laundry. But rephrasing our thoughts about these larger tasks still carries the advantage of removing some of their authoritarian feel and reminding us just why we’re doing them.
And there are more and less complete (and so, more and less true) ways of rephrasing these tasks. Writing the upcoming term paper might not be something you can put off like laundry, but you can still rephrase in psychologically beneficial ways. “I have to write this paper.” Can then become, “I must write this paper if I want to pass this class,” and then “I need to write this paper to understand this area in my field, to get the feel of doing scholarly work, and to have a piece of work I can genuinely be proud of.” There’s no denying that this last rephrasing is much more motivating and freeing, and the first phrasing much more burdensome and anxious. This simple linguistic trick can really be helpful to motivate you to do your work gladly, and get real satisfaction out of doing it. Use it constantly, for every task that feels even slightly daunting or dreadful.
I struggle constantly with time management. So the other day, whilst procrastinating from researching, I wrote down some of the thoughts that have been helpful to me lately on using my time (i.e., my life) wisely. They’re basically little pieces of advice written to myself, so if any of them comes off preachy, it’s not you I think needs preaching to. Here’s the first two. More to follow.
One and Two:
1. The central goal of time management is to get out of your stream of moments something that is worthwhile. “Worthwhile” is unclear, and entirely subjective though. Thus, hidden in the question of how to manage your time is the deeper question of what is worth doing. The best way to answer this question is to do so from an envisioned retrospective view. That is, envision yourself looking back on your usage of time and ask how you would have liked for it to have gone. This is a more helpful viewpoint than viewing time from the present, because at any particular moment there are lots of different drives, desires, impulses, and tendencies that, if acted upon, won’t in the end lead you to view that usage of time as a worthwhile one. The very fact that there is the practice of time management proves this point, for if acting out of whatever immediate drive strikes you ended up in a worthwhile usage of time, there’d be no need to consciously manage your time. It would automatically just work out well. But it doesn’t.
2. One might feel that the practice of time management is by nature restrictive of personal choice, or repressive of one’s natural self, or makes one’s life artificial in some sense. This is not so, or not necessarily so. While one could of course lead a restricted, repressed, artificial life, and while the act of leading this life would probably require a sort of “management” of one’s way of living, the central notion of time management is being conscious and intentional about, and in control of, how you live your life. This, as it turns out, is the very opposite of what one might fear. And, as it also turns out, failing to practice time management in this simple sense leads exactly to what one fears: a life directed totally by what it outside of your control – your impulses, moods, and present drives. The only way to be truly in control of your life, the only way to live a free life, is to live intentionally and consciously. And this is nothing more than “managing” what you’re doing, which necessarily takes place within time.